India orders hundreds of porn sites blocked

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India has ordered more than 800 porn sites blocked for "objectionable" content, a government official said Monday, igniting a row about freedom of speech in the world's biggest democracy.

The telecommunications department has directed Internet service providers (ISPs) to block 857 websites, in the right-wing government's first major crackdown on online pornography.

"We have written to the ISPs asking them to control free and open access to objectionable websites," NN Kaul, a department spokesman, told AFP.

Since the weekend, users across India have been hit with blank pages when they try to access adult sites, many of them based outside the country - sparking anger on social media about moral policing.

According to the adult site Pornhub, India was its fourth largest source of traffic behind the United States, Britain and Canada in 2014.

Kaul said the order was issued after India's top court voiced concern last month about the government's failure to block child porn sites in India.

"There is currently no system to filter specific websites. We are looking into evolving a system," Kaul said, adding that until then all sites would be blocked.

The 17-page order issued on July 31 directed ISPs to block access on morality and decency grounds.

The Supreme Court declined to impose a ban on porn sites last month while hearing a legal petition against them, saying adults had the right to access such websites in private.

Prominent authors, commentators and politicians took to social media to voice their opposition while #Pornban had been trending on Twitter.

"Don't ban porn. Ban men ogling, leering, brushing past, groping, molesting, abusing, humiliating and raping women. Ban non-consent. Not sex," popular author Chetan Bhagat posted on Twitter.

Opposition lawmaker Milind Deora said the ban was "not about liking or disliking porn. It's about govt hijacking personal liberties". "What'll they ban next - phones & TVs?" he said on Twitter.

Internet expert Pranesh Prakash said the ban was undemocratic given there was no evidence that the sites were unlawful.

"The ban seems illegitimate. It is undemocratic because there doesn't seem to be any finding of unlawfulness on these websites," Prakash, policy director of the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society research group, told AFP.

India has been accused of heavy-handed online censorship in the past, including in 2012 when it ordered 300 webpages, images and links on sites including Facebook and Twitter blocked.

It said they were spreading rumours that were fuelling ethnic tensions.